[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
February 25 - March 3, 2000

[Tales From Tritown]

The Germ turns

Hollis the Mountain Man confronts his winter bug

by Sally Cragin

Illustration by Lennie Peterson

Susan Sontag opines illness is a metaphor, but for Hollis the Mountain Man it's multiple imagery. Every winter, he manages to delay what he regards as his "seasonal flu" using Vitamin C, lots of fluids, and good luck. "It's like hearing the Jehovah's Witnesses trundling up to the door, and, just as they're about to knock, you pull the shades down, put out the lights, and stop the whistling teakettle in the same moment," he tells Delia Ellis Bell, the Partial Yankee (there was a questionable great-great grandmother) one afternoon at Happy's Coffee & Qwik-stop (30 kinds of doughnuts, 20 kinds of lottery tickets, one kind of coffee).

"But then . . ." he says sadly, actually pronouncing the words as "Buh . . ."

For once, he's not warming his honker over a steaming mug of Happy's java that's as thick and as iridescent as crankcase oil. For the past two weeks, Hollis has been fighting the demon mother of all colds. Now he's finally well enough to leave the Mountain Lair to tell the tale. $erena the Waitress has thoughtfully provided him with a mug of herbal tea (she's been making her own blends from her garden, as if she doesn't have enough to do).

Delia nods sympathetically. She's relentlessly hale and hearty, which somehow seems inappropriate given her tall and slight frame, pasty white skin, and stick-straight hair. And she's grateful Hollis is well enough to again share a doughnut and a jaw at Happy's. Whitey Leblanc had shown the occasional glimmer of personality -- his brief fascination with Protestant theology, for example. But it's not nearly enough to hold her interest, so Hollis's reemergence is welcomed.

"I never get sick in November or in December," Hollis says. "I think fitting in illness to all the other holiday preparations -- not that I participate, mind you -- is just difficult. It's after Mason and Sunshine and the Mountain Brats come gamboling down from Cow Hampshire and spread their germs on every doorknob and cabinet edge that I get sick. Takes about two weeks for that stuff to incubate, too."

Delia snorts. High-school biology was a long time ago, but she retains shreds of information from her various temp jobs. (For example, despite lacking a nursing degree, she spent a season helping administer flu shots at the local drugstore -- trust her, you don't want to know which one.) "Hollis," she says. "Most bugs can't last that long. I think you got your flu from something else."

But Hollis, whose eustachian tubes are as crammed as the crème-horns in the glass-fronted case are, continues. "Now this started as a cold. I was changing the oil in the truck up at the Tarbox garage when I started to feel a creakiness in my own joints. Thought I couldn't continue. At least Hasky let me put the truck on a lift once they got Judge Cronin's Caddy out the door." Tarbox Automotive ("Collisions? A Specialty") is Hollis's closest neighbor, and it would be closer still if he let them park their cars on the long-disputed no-man's-land between them.

Delia orders a refill of her coffee. She's beginning to feel a bit logy. "When did Hasky start letting you use the lift again?" she asks. Decades before, there had been an unfortunate situation with a Charger Hollis had intended to buy. He had cranked the car up on the lift to inspect it, but its underside -- which the irate seller had failed to mention -- was reduced to a lattice work of rust. Just seconds after the junker was hoisted it came crashing down around them. No sale, thus no lift privileges.

"Aw, I could use it whendebah I want," he insists.

Delia's quietly amused by Hollis's thorough denial, she thinks to herself. "Note to self," she privately muses, "for best-selling, self-help book, What Males Can Teach Us. Chapter three: `Rise Above It.' Males will never admit to feuding, fussing, or otherwise having personal problems with members of their species. It would, after all, make them seem weak and emotional." She shakes her head wondering what subject Hollis has moved on to.

"Ennybay," Hollis continues. "So's I go to bed for the next day and feel fine. I couldn't think of a reason not to go to work, so's I go off on my delivery route. But by the last stop of the day, I know I'm not going to make it back. So I end up parking the Tri'd 'N Tru truck with Myrt at the Rod 'N Reel, drink a ton of coffee, and stagger home. One of the guys brought my truck down the next day."

"Wow," says Delia. "The anatomy of illness in Tritown couldn't be beat with that tale," she says. "Not only have you martyred yourself twice, but you got the Tarboxes, Myrt, and one of your fellow chip-wranglers to do you favors without seeming to ask for help. Fifty points to Hollis!"

Hollis grins and wipes his nose on his sleeve. "That's it, isn't it?" he says. "How to get help without asking for it. Notice I never called you," he continues. "And the fact that you chose to bring me homemade soup, graham crackers, orange juice, and all those weird herb pills was entirely your own volition, right?"

"Well," says Delia philosophically. "`That's just my nature,' as the scorpion says to the frog that was carrying it across the river. When the frog asks why the scorpion plunges the tip of its poisonous stinger into the frog's flank, assuring both of their doom . . ."

Hollis squints. Delia is looking a little more wan than usual, and the static electricity around her head is making her hair rise in strange, sudden arcs. "Delia, you sure you aren't coming down with anything?" he asks.

"Nah," she says. "But if I am, why don't you follow me home and see if you can stop by the store. I'll be needing a whole chicken, a couple of heads of broccoli, and a bag of those oranges. The nice, plump Valencias, not those hard little cueballs." Then she sneezes.

DEAR FELLOW DENIZENS of Tritown, for the first time in seven years (now who's a martyr, sez Delia), I'll be taking a brief sabbatical from this column as Chuck Warner and I are getting married this month. I'll be back by the spring equinox, by which point Hollis and Delia will be over their colds and planning that most resistible of warm-weather diversions: spring cleaning.

Sally Cragin can be reached at aiolia@aol.com.

The Tales From Tritown archive

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